revisiting cooperation

“collaboration means ‘working together’. That’s why you see it in market economies. markets are based on quantity and mass.

cooperation means ‘sharing’. That’s why you see it in networks. In networks, the nature of the connection is important; it is not simply about quantity and mass …

You and I are in a network – but we do not collaborate (we do not align ourselves to the same goal, subscribe to the same vision statement, etc), we *cooperate*” —Stephen Downes

When work requirements are relatively simple, they can be addressed by standardized procedures and best practices. This is the type of work that is getting automated every day. Once a flowchart can describe a process, the algorithms can get to work replacing humans. Complicated work, where systems can be analyzed and understood, can be addressed through industry best-of-breed work practices and can be assisted by enterprise software to ensure people know what is going on.

But complex work requires much greater human involvement and the sharing of implicit knowledge, which cannot easily be codified or captured by software. Chaotic situations, which should be avoided, often require novel and untested solutions, as the crew and ground staff had to do for the Apollo 13 mission.

Understanding the environment and the type of problems we face is assisted by an understanding of the Cynefin framework, which I will be discussing in detail with Dave Snowden in our Learning & Sensemaking Exploratory which starts on 30 September.

Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). Cooperation in our work is needed so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by this complexity. What worked yesterday won’t work today. No one has the definitive answer any more, but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is cooperation and this is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.

Shifting the emphasis of much of our work from collaboration — which still is required to get tasks done — to cooperation, in order to thrive in a networked enterprise, means reassessing some of our assumptions and work practices. For instance:

  • The lessening importance of teamwork, versus exploring outside the organization may change our perceptions about being a ‘team player’.
  • Detailed roles and job descriptions are inadequate for work at the edge.
  • Getting rid of individual performance reviews and focusing on the performance of the whole organization.

Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. Being cooperative means being open to others outside your group. It also requires the casting-off of business metaphors based on military models (target markets, chain of command, strategic plans, line & staff). Cooperation is how we will find a vaccine for Covid-19.

The authors of African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage, show how cooperation in business has historical roots and successful businesses do not need to only compete with each other.

“We define cooperative advantage as the benefits that an organization possesses and accrues due to its people-centered approach to engendering a spirit of care and community, meaningful dialogue, and consensus building, for the benefit of employees, customers, and community.” —MIT Sloan Management Review 2020-09-15

Competitive markets are not the only way to do business.

Cooperation is the essence of relationships between living things. We have evolved to cooperate.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.” —The Independent 2013-08-02

Cooperation is our social imperative.

“Survival of the fittest is a convenient way to justify the cutthroat ethos of a competitive marketplace, political landscape, and culture. But this perspective misconstrues the theories of Darwin as well as his successors. By viewing evolution though a strictly competitive lens, we miss the bigger story of our own social development and have trouble understanding humanity as one big, interconnected team.” —Douglas Rushkoff

Hierarchies dampen cooperation by controlling the flow of information and knowledge. As Yaneer Bar-Yam explains in Complexity Rising, hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases. Lateral connections are created through cooperation.

“At the point at which the collective complexity reaches the complexity of an individual, the process of complexity increase encounters the limitations of hierarchical structures. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.”

5 Responses to “revisiting cooperation”

  1. Charles Findley

    Is it cooperation or is it collaboration? I understand cooperation to be humans working together as interchangeable components. They would work on a known task and have know roles I view collaboration at the edge with undefined problems. I have previously described the process of CNL. In the past project-based teamwork took two basic forms. Initially, the projects were co-located in the same organizational division and individuals were able to cooperate and share a task with one another. Later, another method of project teamwork started to emerge where project team members were brought together from different divisions, often via electronic networking, to work on a designated task. As Friedman (2005) explained, electronic globalization was flattening our world. Inter-national and national matrix organizations supported this type of cross-functional work. The cross-functional nature of this work was becoming more likely collaborative than cooperative. The team work was collaborative in the sense that the members from the different functional divisions applied their expertise to bear on the task. Individuals with different expertise were brought together. They were not interchangeable with other members of the project team. As the information age revolution continued there was an increase in various forms of cross-functional collaboration. And, the work of these cross-functional collaborative teams required that each member contributes to the common shared goal of the team. As Levy and Richard (2005) explained, the new work landscape was changing and so what the nature of job skills required.

    Today and in the unpredictable future, teams will be facing novel task challenges and problems to solve. They will be working in areas where there are no shared, known algorithmic solutions. The team members will collaboratively learn together; and, at some point they will freeze their process to produce an artifact of their learning. The learning artifact will be their “product.” The team members could be co-located but as the expertise and knowledge needed become more specialized the team members will most likely participate through networked technologies. In essence, the work of these teams is learning; and, the outcome of their learning is captured in an artifact to preserve and distribute the learning work. Recently I re-interated the ideas as it related to Massive Collobrative Networked Learning. See Massive Collaborative Networked Learning (MCNL) a model of working together in a Global Pandemic

  2. Harold Jarche

    The definitions I use in any posts about this topic:

    Collaboration: working together for a common objective, often provided externally by a boss or customer.

    Cooperation: sharing freely with no expectation of direct reciprocity.

    Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Cooperation, not collaboration, is a driver of creativity. It is difficult to be creative while collaborating, because the objective has already been established.

    When we know who we are working with (suppliers, partners, customers) then collaboration is optimal. But in networks, someone may be our supplier or even our boss one day and our customer the next, so cooperation becomes the best behaviour. In such a society, people can have multiple valences as nodes in many networks at the same time. Successful individuals in a network society will see that their connections change over time, and that openly sharing will make them more valued nodes in the long run. In networks, cooperation is simultaneously altruistic and selfish.


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